Hot Take: Three great performances highlight the story of three women that absolutely needed to be told. It even overshadows some of the film’s Hollywood clichés that emerge through the storytelling.
The only thing holding back Hidden Figures is its occasionally formulaic and by-the-numbers storytelling. This prevents an entertaining film with a worthy subject from Best Picture consideration. Where the film excels is in its performances. The three women — Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae — chosen to portray three black women who worked for NASA as computers in the early 1960s during the space race was not only excellent casting but performances all worthy of Oscar consideration. Spencer will likely get the most consideration in a supporting role but Henson in the lead role and Monae in a supporting role both are worthy.
The film centers around three black women who work as computers during the Space Race of the 1960s when NASA was attempting to succeed at space exploration before the Soviet Union. The mostly true story features the lives of Katherine Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monae) who all work as mathematicians at Langley Research Center in Virginia. All three have unique tales and each find time in the spotlight. Johnson is the most talented mathematician in the trio and is moved to the East campus as a computer for the male scientist’s math. She faces discrimination based on her gender and color including having to run across campus back to the West campus to use the bathroom for coloreds only. Vaughan has leadership ability and is running the West campus despite their supervisor leaving previously and never being replaced. She can’t get promoted and it looks to be largely due to her color as NASA had never had an African-American supervisor up until that point. Jackson has the mind of an engineer but can’t get through the requirements of the position because she’s not allowed to attend the school necessary as it is segregated. She also faces the challenge of being a woman which NASA had never had a female engineer at the time.
As the story progresses, co-writer/director Theodore Melfi introduces some embellishments for dramatic effect. Most of the main characters outside of the trio at NASA were fictional. Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst all play characters who were not real but some of the instances that occurred in the film between our main characters and these characters did happen. The story also takes liberties with the way these characters were discriminated against at NASA. In most cases, it was more subtle than some of the blatant examples carried out in the film. Some of that wasn’t for dramatic effect as Melfi could not secure the rights to portray the character he wanted Costner to portray.
What’s most interesting about Hidden Figures is its ability to shed the one-dimensional character that usually populates these types of films and give these three women depth. You get the idea these women are more than just smart, successful mathematicians. We see them outside of NASA and watch them face some of the personal struggles they have to face. Both Johnson and Jackson are underestimated by their male romantic interests as the film explores not only racial inequality but gender bias as well. It handles all of these topics with a level of dignity and subtleness. Rarely do the moments in the film feel sensationalized. This creates a balanced and effective message and avoids the often heavy-handed feel movies of this ilk usually have.
Hidden Figures ends up being a collaborative effort to bring an inspiring and uplifting story to the big screen by three very talented actresses and a solid support cast. Melfi does a solid job as director although the film occasionally has a “by-the-numbers” feel to it. This and his previous work as director of 2014’s St. Vincent is starting to make up an impressive directorial resume. Early box office results indicate audiences are there for films with strong black female leads which is great to see in such a polarizing point in our timeline. This is one of those films that is definitely a creative success but deserves to be a financial success, too.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- The Trio (You’ll Probably Have a Favorite, Though)
We’re trying to not play favorites here as all three women turn in excellent performances. Henson, Spencer and Monae all light up the screen and it’s impossible to find a weak link in the trio. Personally, I enjoyed Henson’s performance the most. Her restraint throughout made her occasional emotional scenes that much more powerful.
- The Story
Such an inspirational story being largely untold to this point is a huge miss. Hidden Figures is a story everyone should know and celebrate.
- The Soundtrack
Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams (who also co-produces) handle the music. These are two immensely talented artists and it is evident in the resulting product.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Those Embellishments (But Not For Why You Think)
Normally, I’m not a fan of when a factual film takes creative license. In this film, it works really well. My only concern is those who attempt to discredit the film’s message by fixating on these creative choices to get the message across.